Landmark civil rights events, through the lens of the media

03/19/2013 10:00 PM

03/20/2013 5:41 PM

On March 15, 1960, six weeks after sit-in demonstrations started in Greensboro, N.C., to integrate lunch counters there, 425 people were arrested in Orangeburg in similar sit-in demonstrations.

Jim Covington, then a Columbia freelance photographer and WIS-TV cameraman, got a black eye that day while filming the news on the courthouse grounds in Orangeburg.

“Three white men grabbed me and one of them hit me for taking pictures of blacks,” said Covington, holding up a circa-1960s, black and white photograph of the alleged attacker — a middle-aged white male.

“They were upset that the demonstrations were happening, but they certainly didn’t want any TV coverage,” Covington said recently. “They didn’t want you to contribute to the news that was happening,” he surmised.

The next day, he said, The State newspaper’s then-chief photographer, Richard Taylor, published young Covington’s picture in the newspaper with his shiner.

Covington, now 81, was just one of many members of the South Carolina media covering the civil rights struggles in the 1960s during the push to overturn segregation in the South.

Noted S.C. photojournalist Cecil J. Williams worked for JET magazine from 1955-68 and was at the forefront of reporting and photographing the civil rights movement here.

Among the events Williams, now 75, photographed was Harvey Gantt registering for classes at Clemson University in September 1963. At the Clemson integration, Williams said he was one of probably just three black media representatives working the milestone event.

Williams said that in those days, JET and Ebony magazines relied on a stringer network of about 25 journalists. The magazines, he said, were not part of The Associated Press and United Press International, national news services.

Williams recalled the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman, who became president of the state NAACP and later a state senator, sometimes would go to Williams’ high school to get him out of class to go with him to photograph local events.

“Usually I’ve found that the first-hand accounts of the American civil rights movement are largely the most accurate,” said Williams. Williams has written three books on the subject, including “Freedom and Justice: Four Decades of the Civil Rights Movement As Seen By A Black Photographer of the Deep South.”

Covington, like Williams, covered Gantt’s 1963 integration of Clemson, as well as Henri Montieth’s entrance into the University of South Carolina that same year.

Covington recalled working on a story about a very visible “white’s only” sign at Maxcy Gregg park, at Pickens and Blossom streets, that caused tension in the city at the time between blacks and whites.

And he covered Ku Klux Klan rallies in the 1960s, including in Columbia, where he recalled an event one Sunday at the former Kester’s Bamboo House restaurant.

“I told my wife, if you don’t hear from me in 30 minutes call (then SLED director) Pete Strom. I’m at a Klan rally in Five Points. We had a lot of that going on,” Covington said.

Kent Krell, who was an Associated Press reporter in Columbia from 1956-70 and later retired from The State as an associate editor, was involved in some of the civil rights movement coverage.

“We were somewhat looked upon with suspicion (by authorities),” Krell said. “People didn’t realize we had an office in Columbia and thought we were from New York or Washington or someplace.”

Krell said sometimes, as in the case of the Orangeburg Massacre, where three students were killed by law enforcement officials while demonstrating on campus, reporters became too complacent.

“Upon reflection, we perhaps overly relied on the authorities, without questioning sometimes what they were saying, and this came to a head to a degree in the Orangeburg situation,” Krell said.

Covington has amassed a wealth of photographs and film of historic civil rights moments in South Carolina over the course of his career.

“We lost three young men at Orangeburg, and I’m not trying to make (their lives) sound cheap or expendable,” he said, “but I still maintain we handled our integration better than Mississippi, Alabama or any of them.”

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